With Retro Studios taking the reins in the early 2010's, the Donkey Kong Country series returned with a bang and it saw two phenomenal entries on the Wii and Wii U (Returns and Tropical Freeze). Despite their quality though, there hasn't been a core entry into the series since 2014 (we're not counting the Switch re-release), and fans have been starting to wonder whether they will ever see the lovable mascot return in this way again. A new sequel may not be in sight, but the next best thing has happened, as a new platformer has emerged that wonderfully captures the look and spirit of this beloved series of games.
Kaze and the Wild Masks stays true to other classics within the genre as its story is practically non-existent. At the start of the game, your rabbit companion Hogo is sucked inside of a glowing red ring and then it's up to you to venture across a region known as the Crystal Islands to rescue them and put a stop to a mysterious unexplained curse. There's no voice acting present and cutscenes are admittedly sparse, but what I will say is that they do showcase a stunning cartoonish and expressive style that feels very distinctive.
The core platforming here feels like a hybrid between the recent Rayman games (Origins and Legends) and the Donkey Kong Country series. The action takes place from a 2D perspective and the goal of each level is to move your way to the right until you reach a concluding portal. Kaze can ground pound enemies, spin her ears like a propeller to hover over gaps, and can inherit new abilities by wearing several animal masks. The mechanics might be straightforward and simple to grasp, but they are constantly put to the test through hazards such as rising pools of lava, trampoline-like blobs of jelly, and crossbows that you'll need to activate to sling yourself across the air.
The 30+ levels are brought to life with some gorgeous and brightly coloured pixel art and something that I really appreciated is that each world's stages aren't just dependent on reusing the same motif. This is something that platformers such as Mario are pretty guilty of as they will feature one world containing purely desert or snow levels, for example, but Kaze mixes things up each step of the way and this makes it less predictable. Along with being varied, the levels are also well paced and the enemies here feel distinctive, as they are all vegetables that have been brought to life with their own kooky personalities.
The animal mask that we touched upon earlier can transform you into several different animal creatures (including a shark, an eagle, and a lizard) by passing shrines scattered throughout the levels. These don't just provide a cosmetic change, as they also enable Kaze to inherit new abilities such as being able to dash forwards, soar through the air, and charge speedily through bodies of water. I should note though that these abilities are only temporary and always occur in the same place, so you can't activate them whenever you feel like.
Whilst I did find that many of these abilities added a fun twist to the core platforming, not all of them managed to hit the mark. I found myself sighing in disappointment every time that I had to use the lizard mask, as this essentially turns the game into an endless runner and some sections felt near impossible without trial and error. I also wasn't a huge fan of the eagle mask, as the controls felt awfully floaty. It felt tiring to control too, as on Xbox, I had to continually press the A button to keep myself in the air and avoid moving obstacles.
Just like many other platformers, Kaze has a wealth of shiny collectibles scattered throughout its levels, and the rewards for collecting these are pretty meaningful. Players can unlock entirely new stages in each world by completing the challenges contained in two bonus rooms in each stage. There's also concept artwork that can be unlocked for gathering up 100 purple gems (the game's main collectible), and all of the cleverly placed letters that spell out Kaze's name. In addition to all of this, there's also Crash Bandicoot-like time trials that see you try to complete a stage as fast as possible without dying on your way.
If you've found yourself disappointed by the challenge present in modern day platformers, then you'd be pleased to know that Kaze's difficulty will really put your platforming skills to the test. The levels in the later words in particular can feel pretty punishing on the recommended normal difficulty, as enemies and traps are abundant and you only sustain one hit, unless you grab yourself a heart. Even as an avid platforming fan, I found myself dying 10s of times during the later stages, and I probably would have given up if the game didn't feature regular checkpoints. Luckily, if you do find yourself struggling, there is a more relaxed difficulty mode present that eases the experience by giving you more health pickups.
Kaze and the Wild Masks is an exceptional platformer that is sure to satisfy those who are longing for another entry in the Donkey Country series. Its levels are varied and well-paced, and the many different mask abilities help add fun twists to the core gameplay, even if some are borrowed directly from DKC. It's not without its shortcoming, however, as some of the abilities can prove to be frustrating and the difficulty can be a little too punishing at times.